The Latest Episode of 'Dr. Phil' About Anorexia Crossed the Line
Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Juliette, The Mighty’s associate mental health editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.
If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.
Sigh. Dr. Phil has done it again. While I’ve generally resigned myself to the fact that Dr. Phil will continue to push out irresponsible, cringe-worthy TV under the guise of “therapeutic intervention,” his most recent episode on Monday about anorexia crossed the line from irresponsible to dangerous — and it warrants a discussion.
The episode follows Jordan, a 23-year-old woman struggling with anorexia, as she navigates her disorder and difficult family relationships. While it’s not inherently bad to do a TV segment on someone’s eating disorder journey, the way Dr. Phil handled Jordan’s story could be incredibly triggering for someone struggling with an eating disorder — not to mention the episode broke every single media guideline for reporting on eating disorders responsibly.
In typical Dr. Phil fashion, he offered no psychological evaluation, instead opting to ask increasingly dramatic questions to get “shocking” responses from Jordan. This kind of sensationalized questioning does not encourage a desire to learn more about and support people with eating disorders — it encourages the audience to engage in morbid voyeurism of someone who desperately needs mental health intervention.
Below, we’ll break down why this episode was dangerous, and what harmful — and false — stereotypes it perpetuated about anorexia. As a note, The Mighty reached out to the show about airing content that could be damaging to the eating disorder community and has yet to hear back.
Though there is a content warning at the beginning of this piece, I’d like to reiterate that if you struggle with an eating disorder or body image issues, topics discussed in this piece may be emotionally distressing. Please proceed with caution.
Here’s what you should keep in mind if you see news circulating about this particular segment of “Dr. Phil”:
1. Promoting graphic images of “dangerous thinness” is incredibly harmful.
If you take a quick scan of Dr. Phil’s Twitter (which I have not linked on purpose), you’ll see his feed is clogged with distressing and graphic videos/photos of Jordan’s body. The number of tweets promoting Jordan’s story far surpasses the number of tweets for other episodes, reinforcing that the show is exploiting and sensationalizing this poor woman’s struggles for ratings.
According to Eating Disorders Victoria’s media guidelines for reporting on eating disorders, dramatizing dangerous thinness promotes a “race to the bottom” mentality, that may encourage folks with eating disorders to think to things like,”She is thinner than I am and she’s still alive. I should lose more weight.”
Not only is it triggering for folks with eating disorders to see, it also perpetuates the harmful belief that you have to look “emaciated” to be struggling with an eating disorder — when the reality is eating disorders affect people of all sizes.
2. Eating disorders aren’t a competition and aren’t about self-control.
One of the most heartbreaking things Jordan said was that she hoped to “show how disciplined I can be, and how I’m one of the ‘best anorexics’ out there.”
Airing a segment that allows someone actively struggling with her eating disorder to glorify and take pride in being the “best anorexic” is not only problematic, it’s dangerous. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), “Our culture’s toxic messages around [food, weight and dieting] mean that eating disordered behaviors can be praised, and a clinical disorder disguised as just another diet.”
What may appear as “self-discipline” on the outside may not actually be about control at all. In her piece, “When Your Eating Disorder Is About the Desire for Control,” Mighty contributor Louise Maher describes that in her quest for control, her eating disorder ends up controlling her. “It’s when I start to lose control that my eating disorder presents itself to me as somewhat of a comfort blanket; except this comfort blanket will soon wrap its way around me, suffocating me,” she wrote.
3. It’s never OK to give specific numbers when talking about eating disorders.
I won’t repeat the number here, but the segment repeatedly highlighted Jordan’s weight and included specifics about how little she ate. This kind of reporting functions on “shock value” rather than trying to increase awareness about how debilitating eating disorders can be. According to NEDA, sharing specifics “can turn a well-intentioned story into ‘how-to’ instructions for someone to follow.” Sharing specifics like the number of calories, types of food or time spent exercising can give someone a benchmark to compare themselves to, which is dangerous for people struggling with disordered eating.
Dr. Phil, whether I like it or not, the reality is that you are a well-known voice in the mental health space. With that kind of influence comes responsibility. I implore you to keep the eating disorder community in mind when you talk about serious, life-threatening illnesses like anorexia, because the reality is, it’s a matter of life and death. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. We must look beyond ratings. It’s time we do better.
Screenshots via drphil.com